Part Five of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.
In November, 1921, Elmo Arnold Robinson, known as “Robbie,” arrived at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto with his wife Olga and sons Kelsey, who was 9 months old, and Arnold, almost 5 years old. Robbie, ordained as a Universalist minister, had lots of experience in small congregations, plus he had just finished a two-year stint as the Director of Religious Education at a church in southern California. Olga was also licensed as a Universalist minister, although her time was taken up with her small children. It’s hard to imagine that the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto could have found a better match for their needs.
Not much happened in Robinson’s first year, except that Sunday school enrollment dropped still further. Emma Rendtorff had been the superintendent of the Sunday school in the 1920-1921 school year, and Sunday school enrollment crept back up to 31 children, but that was Emma’s last year as superintendent; her daughter Gertrude entered Stanford University in the fall of 1921, so Emma was no longer quite so invested in the Sunday school. In 1921-1922, Elmo Robinson’s first year, the church went through three Sunday school superintendents: Jessie Morton, who was William H. Carruth’s mother-in-law; William Ewert, a student at Stanford University; and Frank Gonzales, another Stanford student who served the longest of the three. With all that turnover, it’s not surprising that enrollment in the Sunday school dropped to 20, probably the lowest enrollment since 1908.
But Elmo Robinson had already turned his thoughts to religious education. In the summer of 1922, his essay “The Place of the Child in the Religious Education Community” was published in the Pacific Unitarian. This essay outlined a progressive philosophy of religious education that was tied to social reform:
“Every religious community believes that the future can be made better than the present. Every church, while cherishing certain ideals and methods of the past, must fire its young people with a vision of the future which will encourage them to devise new ways and means to realize it. Do you want world peace? World justice? The cooperative commonwealth?… All these things can be accomplished only by admitting children and young people to the full fellowship of the religious community as friends….”
Presumably, this essay repeated what had already been going on in the Palo Alto church. Bertha Chapman Cady was one of the teachers in the Sunday school in 1921-1922, and she involved the children in helping to run the class; one of her daughters, for example, became the class secretary. Children were becoming fully involved into the religious community of the church. The lay leaders seem to have found his vision a compelling one. The next school year, 1922-1923, the charismatic William Carruth agreed to be the superintendent of the Sunday school, and enrollment immediately shot up to 33 children.
Part Four of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.
The American Unitarian Association sent William Short, Jr., to be the next minister of the Palo Alto church. Short, the son of an Episcopalian priest who had died when he was just 17 years old, entered the Episcopal Theological school, in Cambridge, Mass., in 1912. He became interested in Unitarianism, and two days before he graduated from the Episcopal Divinity School, he applied for fellowship as a Unitarian minister. Louis Cornish and others at the American Unitarian Association advised him to serve as assistant minister under some more experienced Unitarian minister, but Short insisted he was ready for his own parish. Cornish later remembered that Short had “the ready gift of awakening friendship in other men.” After serving as the summer minister in the Unitarian church in Walpole, Mass., Cornish assigned Short to the Palo Alto church. Short arrived in Palo Alto in November, 1915.
At first, it seemed like a good match between congregation and minister. True, the Sunday school enrollment dropped from 90 students in 1915 down to 54 the next year, but under Emma Rendtorff’s leadership enrollment rebounded to 63 students in 1917. Church membership was low in 1916, with just 40 members, and that probably represents a significant decline. But for a small church, it was quite active:
“[In winter, 1916-1917] the church hall [i.e., the Social Hall] has given hospitality…to Mr. John Spurgo, the noted Socialist speaker; to the American Union against Militarism, which is earnestly fighting the cause of democracy; and to Mme. Aino Malmberg, a refugee from the persecutions of Old Russia.… Two physical training clubs for women and girls have their home in the hall, as well as a club to encourage the finer type of social dancing. The church passed a resolution of approval of the visit of Mr. Short to Sacramento in March  in the interests of the Physical Training bills.”
It appears that much of this activity sprang from Short’s theory of religion:
“[I]f religion is to awaken and triumph over the soullessness of life it must be based on unquestionable sincerity and bear a stirring message for the oppressed and the outcasts of society; it must be the potent factor in the reconstruction of the social order.…”
But none of this activity really had much to do with Unitarianism. The church was proud that the “pamphlet-rack in the vestibule must constantly be refilled,” but the congregation was the smallest it had ever been since the completion of the church building in 1907.
By early 1917, William Short decided he didn’t want to continue working as a minister any more. On March 15, 1917, after just a year and a half serving the Palo Alto church, he wrote to Louis Cornish, “I have failed [as a minister in Palo Alto], and my intention is to try to understand life better before I try to preach again in some other place.” Short’s resignation was not even mentioned in the minutes of the Board of Trustees.
Short was a strong pacifist: his next job was with the People’s Council of San Francisco, an anti-war group, and he wound up being arrested for draft evasion in 1918 after military authorities decided he was not exempt from the draft under the exemption for ministers. As a pacifist, Short inspired some of the pacifists in the Palo Alto church, including Guido Marx, who attempted to bail him out of jail when he was arrested for draft evasion. But Short also annoyed the pro-war contingent in the congregation, and the simmering conflict between the two groups split the church and contributed to the decline in membership and participation during the war years. When Alfred S. Niles came to the church in 1927, more than a decade after Short had left, he was told that “the minister at the time of World War I had been a pacifist and conscientious objector, and this had caused a split in the church from which it never recovered.” By all accounts, Short’s ministry ended in failure.
The Palo Alto church was at such low ebb after Short’s departure that a denominational field representative “recommended the merging of the San Jose and Palo Alto churches” in April, 1917. Denominational officials agreed, and “proposed the federation of the churches for reasons of economy in January, 1918.” However, the San Jose Unitarians were not interested in merging, and they began to raise funds and increase their membership; by early 1920, the San Jose Unitarians paid off all their debt to the denomination. The denomination was stuck with the Palo Alto church, and had to figure out what to do with it.
Another story for liberal religious kids. Originally written c. 2000 for First Parish in Lexington, Mass. I dusted off this old story and fixed it up a little because my current congregation’s Sunday school will be learning about P. T. Barnum this year. This story comes from his 1872 autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs.
He was the greatest showman in America! He was a man who was known and loved everywhere, the most famous person in the United States in the nineteenth century! He was the man who created “the greatest show on earth”! His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum.
P. T. Barnum was a showman, the greatest showman of all time, a man who put on shows of strange and wonderful things in his giant Museum in New York City. He exhibited the very first live hippopotamus ever seen in North America. His museum was known for its amazing and incredible animals. He even exhibited the amazing Feejee Mermaid. (Well, actually he later admitted that the Feejee Mermaid was a fake that had been glued together.)
He was a showman, but more than that he was an expert at making money. He had a two-part secret for making money. First, give the public good value. Second, get all the free advertising that you can. Here’s an example of how Barnum gave good value, and got free advertising for his fabulous American Museum….
P. T. Barnum brought thirteen elephants Asia to North America. He exhibited them in New York and all across the North American continent. After four years, he sold all but one. He kept that one for his farm in Connecticut. He figured out a way that the elephant could draw a plow. Then he hired a man to use the elephant to plow a tiny corner of Barnum’s farm, which just happened to be right next to the main line of the New York and New Haven Railroad.
P. T. Barnum gave this man a time-table for the railroad. Every time a passenger train was due to pass by, the man made sure the elephant was busily engaged in drawing the plow, right where all the passengers could see.
Hundreds of people each day rode the train past Barnum’s elephant. Everyone who saw it was amazed and astonished. Barnum was using an elephant to draw a plow! Reporters from all the New York newspapers came to write stories on this amazing spectacle. People wrote letters to Barnum from far and wide, asking his advice on how they, too, might use an elephant to draw a plow on their farms.
When Barnum responded to these letters, he always wrote: “Now this is strictly confidential, but for goodness sake don’t even think of getting an elephant. They eat far too much hay and you would lose money. I’m just doing it to draw attention to my museum in New York.”
Pictures of Barnum’s elephant pulling the plow began to appear in newspapers all across the United States, and even overseas in Europe. People came out to Connecticut on purpose just to see Barnum’s elephant at work. They would say, “Why look at that! That’s a real elephant drawing that plow! If Barnum can use an elephant on his farm, he must have all kinds of animals at his Museum. Guess I’ll go to Barnum’s Museum next time I’m in New York city.”
One day, an old farmer friend of Barnum’s came to visit. This farmer wanted to see the elephant at work. By this time, that six acre plot of land beside the railroad had been plowed over about sixty times. The farmer watched the elephant work for a while, and then he turned to Barnum and said, “My team of oxen could pull harder than that elephant any day.”
“Oh, I think that elephant can draw better than your oxen,” said Barnum.
“I don’t want to doubt your word,” said his farmer friend, “but tell me how that elephant can draw better than my oxen.”
Barnum replied, “That elephant is drawing the attention of twenty million people to Barnum’s Museum.”
P. T. Barnum later became famous for his circus, but not many people know that he was also a Universalist. He’s one of my favorite Unitarian Universalists, precisely because he wasn’t perfect. He didn’t always tell the truth, but at least he later admitted when he tried to fool people. He made too much money, but he made sure to give lots of his money away to help other people. He gave money to poor people, and he gave money to help people stop drinking, and he built parks that everyone could use, and he gave lots of money to his Universalist church. I like P. T. Barnum because I know I’m not perfect. But even though I make mistakes, I can follow Barnum’s example and help make the world a better place.
Years are coming — speed them onward! When the sword shall gather rust, And the helmet, lance, and falchion, Sleep at last in silent dust!
This hymn has mostly been reprinted in Universalist and Unitarian Universalist hymnals, and it is usually attributed to the Universalist minister Adin Ballou, who founded the utopian Hopedale community in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1842. Ballou and the members of the Hopedale community were believers in women’s rights and abolition and temperance and education and pacifism. Recently, while I was researching family history, I discovered that my mother’s great-grandparents Nathan Chapman and Hepzibah Whipple left the utopian Rogerenes of Ledyard, Conn., to join the nearby utopian Hopedale community in Massachusetts; and their daughter Jeannette was married in Hopedale to her husband Richard Congdon by none other than Rev. Adin Ballou; and though by the time of this marriage the Hopedale community had gone bankrupt, the spirit of the community lived on in the Hopedale Unitarian church of which Ballou was the minister.
Not only did this family history help explain why I’m a feminist, pacifist, educator, and utopian dreamer, but I decided it must explain why I like this hymn so much.
Amy Morgenstern, the senior minister, and I have been talking about child dedications recently. As we talked, I realized that one of the results of the social process known as “secularization” (which in the U.S. is more of an adjustment away from communal religious organizations to individualized religious practices) is that fewer and fewer people know that there are established communal practices to welcome babies. Even if they do know about such practices as Unitarian Universalist child dedications, they may find it difficult to understand why they would want to have a communal ceremony, within a religious community, rather than something more individualistic.
This realization has led me to rethink the entire concept of child dedications. After I was born in 1960, I was christened (not dedicated) in a Unitarian church — but what was a Unitarian christening, and was there then a distinctive way of thinking about this naming ceremony? What about Universalist understandings of naming ceremonies? How have Unitarian and Universalist naming ceremonies combined and evolved into Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies?
I don’t yet have answers to these questions, but I’ve been collecting relevant historical documents. Without further ado, here are documents from the 20th century that relate to Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies.
And indeed, in the essay, McClymond makes what I think is an important argument: “Twenty-first-century Christian universalism may be interpreted as a form of [a] religion of humanity, minimizing humanity’s ineradicable spiritual divisions and annexing the biblical God to a secular affirmation of total human solidarity…. Universalism admits that the first-century Jesus was crucified, but it insists that the twenty-first-century Jesus will be crowned by the crowd. Universalism is the Gospel narrative frozen at the moment of the triumphal entry, when everyone stands in solidarity applauding Jesus.” In other words, Universalism is linked to rationalism, and more specifically to a rationalist interpretation of Biblical texts that selectively ignores any texts that disprove the idea of universal salvation.
Also of great interest to me was the way McClymond traces recent belief in universal salvation through twentieth century theologians such as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jurgen Moltmann, up into twenty first century authors David Hart and and Richard Rohr. McClymond doesn’t mention my favorite twenty first century Quaker Universalists, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland — but why should he? — they are marginal figures at best, especially compared to Richard Rohr who, according the McClymond, hobnobs with Oprah and Bono.
So far, so good.
But even though McClymond has an important argument to make, his essay reads more like an apologetic for traditional “limitarian” theology, rather than careful history. Indeed, I’d say his history comes across as slapdash. For example, his essay includes several inaccuracies just in the first two sentences:
“Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.”
Organized Universalism dates to the late eighteenth century: the General Conference of Universalists was organized in 1793 (according to David Bumbaugh, former professor of history at Meadville Lombard Theological School). And New England Universalists organized themselves as early at 1785, so there is an argument to be made that organized Universalism in North American began in that year. The General Conference changed its name to the Universalist Church of America in 1942, less than twenty years before it consolidated (not merged; there is a legal difference) with the American Unitarian Association.
Minor details, but not unimportant details. Universalism did not originally call itself a “Church,” but rather named itself a “General Conference.” Theologically, this was consistent with Universalists’ emphasis on what historian Stephen Marini calls “Gospel liberty,” which in turn is important because there were multiple theologies of universal salvation among eighteenth and nineteenth century Universalists. Compare Hosea Ballou, Elhanan Winchester, John Murray, and James Relly, all active in the eighteenth century, and you will find diverse universalisms: trinitarian and unitarian, ultra-universalism (the belief that the soul goes immediately to heaven upon dying) and restorationism (the belief in punishment after death, but not for all eternity), and many other diversities of belief. This internal diversity in organized Universalism could actually strengthen McClymond’s argument that Universalism depended on rationalism, for each of these universalisms was argued on the basis that God gave humans rationality and expected them to use it to find out answers for themselves; thus these organized Universalists of the General Conference of Universalists placed rationality at least on a par with scriptural authority, and it could be argued that some of them placed rationality as superior to scriptural evidence.
There is even more theological diversity once you get outside the General Conference of Universalists, especially once you get into the twentieth century; by the mid twentieth century, the real strength of Universalism lay outside that denomination. The Great Depression caused the Universalist General Conference to shrink rapidly; changing the name to Universalist Church of America in 1942 was what we’d call today a rebranding effort, but rebranding didn’t work; according to some old Universalists I knew, the Universalists didn’t consolidate with the Unitarians, they were taken over by them; and perhaps a misinterpretation of these historical facts is why McClymond makes this unhistorical pronouncement: “Once human reasoning had deconstructed the divine mysteries of election and eschaton, it applied its tender mercies to the Trinity and Incarnation as well…. No election, no hell, no atonement, no divine Son, no divine Spirit, and no Trinity — all that remained was moral uplift and human solidarity, or, as one wit put it, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.” Oops: that last epigram was directed at the Unitarians, not the Universalists. But it’s simply wrong to conflate the Universalists and the Unitarians: Bob Needham, an old-time Universalist I once knew, is probably turning over in his grave to hear McClymond conflate Universalism and Unitarianism, for that kind of sloppy thinking infuriated him.
In truth, at the time of consolidation in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) retained very little of Universalism, and retained less and less as the years went by. By the twenty first century century, there are very few actual Universalists within the UUA, and the real strength of universalism lies outside the UUA — and also outside the Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBUs), the other main denominational home of the doctrine of universal salvation in North America. Today, Universalism is barely a footnote within the UUA; and the UUA and the PBUs are barely footnotes in the religious life of the United States.
I still want a good solid history of universalism (small “u,” i.e., not restricted to the General Conference of Universalists and its successor bodies) that extends from at least the eighteenth century up through the present day. I’d like to see both an intellectual history, and a social history. I’d like to see a history that recognizes the diversity of beliefs within universal salvation — and there’s a great deal of diversity amongst Judith Sargent Murray, Karl Barth, Gulley and Mulholland, the Primitive Baptist Universalists, Richard Rohr, and Jurgen Moltmann. I’d like to see a history that pays careful attention to facts, even seemingly insignificant ones. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to get any of that from McClymond’s book. And I’m not willing to pay ninety bucks to buy his book to find out.
Any other scholars out there interested in writing a history of the doctrine of universal salvation?
Update, Nov. 13: revised captions and added parenthetical note defining ultra-Universalism; numerous minor edits for clarity.
Nathan Johnson was an African American who is best known for welcoming Frederick Douglass into his house on Douglass’s first night of freedom in New Bedford, Mass. In the late 1830s, Johnson was a member of the Universalist church in New Bedford, then served by the staunchly abolitionist minister John Murray Spear.
A few years ago, I wrote a brief biography of Nathan Johnson. Since then, online searching of federal and state census records has gotten much easier, and I easily tracked Johnson in Massachusetts through three U.S. Censuses. Of greater interest, I believe I have found him in the 1852 California census.
First, here are the U.S. Census records from Johnson’s time in New Bedford (note that links will require you to sign in to FamilySearch.org to view the photos of the census records):
1830 U.S. Census [see image 71 of 102]: Nathan Johnson listed as head of household; only white persons are enumerated in the census, and no one is enumerated in Nathan Johnson’s household, leading to the conclusion that he is black. Most probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.
1840 U.S. Census [see image 43 of 204]: Nathan Johnson, head of household; in the household were on black male between 10 and 24 years old, one black male between 33 and 55 [probably Johnson himself], 3 black females between 10 and 24, 1 black female between 24 and 33, 2 black females between 33 and 55, and one black female over 55. This corresponds well enough with what we know of Johnson’s household. Most probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.
1850 U.S. Census [see image 111 of 388]: Although I believe that Nathan was in California by 1850, his wife, Mary “Polly” Johnson may have expected him to return soon, and so reported him to the census taker. The household is listed as follows: Nathan Johnston [sic], 54 year old male, black, occupation “Waiter,” owning real estate valued at $15,500, born in Penna.; Mary J. Johnston, 60 year old female, black, born in Mass.; Charlotte A. Page, 10 year old female, black, born in Mass.; Clarissa Brown, 14 year old female, black, born in Ohio; Emily Brown, 75 year old female, black, born in Penna.; George Page, 17 year old male, black, occupation laborer, born in Mass. Probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.
Next, the 1852 California census:
An N. Johnson is listed as living in Yuba, Calif, age 57, born in Penna. In consulting other records, I had tentatively placed Nathan Johnson in Yuba City, so this could possibly be our Nathan Johnson. (No image of the census records available.) This was the only record I could find that matched our Nathan Johnson in California. Update on 8/29: Lisa deGruyter, who commented below, sent me the image of the 1852 California census, and reveals that this N. Johnson was white, probably age 36 (the handwriting is hard to read), born in Germany, and last lived in Louisiana — clearly not our Nathan Johnson.
Further update on 8/30: Lisa deGruyter has found our Nathan Johnson in the 1852 California census. He is listed as N. Johnston, age 54, black, occupation Miner, born Penna., last residence Mass., currently living in Yuba County.
And I was unable to find any further U.S. Census records of Nathan Johnson living in Massachusetts or California.Update on 8/29: Lisa deGruyter found a Nathan Johnson listed in the 1855 Massachusetts census as living in New Bedford, with occupation given as “Cal.” (in quotation marks), which, as Lisa points out, could mean that Nathan was working in California; listed as a black male, age 55, with Mary Johnson living with him; his birthplace Penna. This is almost assuredly our Nathan Johnson, and reveals that Polly still thought of his removal to California as in some sense temporary.
The most interesting bit of information is the 1852 California Census, which seems to confirm Johnson’s presence in Yuba. The most interesting piece of information is finding Nathan Johnson listed in the 1852 California Census as a miner in Yuba County. But where he was in California from 1852 to 1873 remains a mystery. Lisa deGruyter found a little more information in a National Park Service Research Report “California Pioneers of African Descent,” available here.
Nathan Johnson returned to Massachusetts after his wife’s death, in 1873. His gravestone in Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford states that he died Oct. 11, 1880, “aged 85 years,” with the legend “Freedom for all Mankind.” The death records for the City of New Bedford list his birthplace as Virginia, and it is possible that prior to the Civil War he gave a free state as his birthplace because he had emancipated himself from slavery.